Sam Riviere on Martial,
authenticity and stealing
Sam Riviere is a poet and publisher. He has published three poetry collections with Faber & Faber: 81 Austerities (2012), which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (2015), and After Fame (2020), two poems from which are published in the April/May 2020 issue of The London Magazine. His prose work Safe Mode was shortlisted for the Collyer Bristow Prize in 2018. He is the founder of the micropublisher If A Leaf Falls Press, which has released over 60 titles to date.
Your latest collection is After Fame: The Epigrams of Martial, a playful reworking of the first book of Epigrams by the Roman poet. What first drew you to Martial?
I discovered Martial’s poetry by searching for the number 104 for an unrelated reason, which was recorded on Wikipedia as being the year he probably died. I trust this kind of thing, and it led me to reading some of the epigrams, which I imagine I had vaguely heard of before. I responded immediately to their playfulness, sarcasm, brevity, devotion to social commentary, and general refusal of seriousness – especially things like Martial’s own admission that his poems aren’t even that good, a lot of the time. This is a refreshing statement coming from the mouth of a poet, to say the least.
Tell us more about your writing process for this new collection. You funnel the original Latin epigrams through a machine translator, which often struggles to translate them accurately.
I began experimenting with machine translation because a lot of the available translations seemed dated in the way perhaps only translations of works from antiquity can be – sort of reflecting back the tastes of the time. Inevitably my book does this as well. Machine translation struggles with Latin – it has a go, but simply doesn’t have a large enough data set to provide anything like the accuracy it’s able to get with modern European languages now. My own writing process began in that margin of error – attempting to bridge the gap between whatever the program had spat out, and something that felt like a poem to me. These became less and less obviously related to the original poems as I went on.
I love the way the poem ‘’, printed in the latest issue of The London Magazine, uses footnotes, and then footnotes within footnotes, mirroring the image in the poem of the tulip concealing secret papers. You repurpose them to be creative, funny and irreverent; but why were you drawn to footnotes, which on paper, particularly in an academic context, are often dry, clunky, pedantic — anathema to fun?
The book plays around with the tropes of scholarly editions of ancient texts – notes, corrections, addenda, suppositions, speculations, editorial interventions… I was reading quite a lot about Martial as I started to get more immersed in the ‘translation’ process, if that’s what it was, so the book is perhaps best viewed as a record of reading the poems, in the sort of multifarious way you have to when the original text isn’t legible (I have no Latin to speak of) – hopefully presented in a way that is at least entertaining.
The other thing about footnotes is that in, say, a scholarly edition of a historical text like Martial’s, they form a dialogue across time. Similarly, After Fame connects across thousands of years, from Martial to the present day. What aspects of Martial are most relevant to us today?
On the face of it, much of it is incredibly relevant – his concern with late empire, political hypocrisy, the private lives of the famous, sexual dynamics, professional friendships (amicitia), the poet’s ambivalent relationship to money, work and leisure, intellectual property, urban alienation, the collapse of art into the social field. At the same time Martial was writing in a pre-Christian society, and I’m wary of drawing simplistic parallels – having Rome stand in uncomplicatedly for the United States, for example. Part of my approach has been to try and dramatize the distance of his work, to have it retain some of its obscurity or mystery.
Martial was the first writer to use the word ‘plagiarism’ in its modern context, as a kind of literary theft, and in After Fame the line between yourself and Martial is constantly being blurred. Why is plagiarism a recurring reference point for you? Is it still a useful concept?
The ownership of texts and ideas is something that preoccupies me, and I’m interested in how our current understanding of this, through the construction of copyright law, is a relatively recent development (the Statute of Anne established basic copyright in 1710). The further back you go, the less distinction there is between a scribe or a copyist and an author. They were (and are, I think) really the same thing – that is, a method of distribution, a ‘channel’. It seems to me that all writing has elements of plagiarism – or recycling and repurposing – much more than we usually admit, and this is something that other cultures have been more comfortable with, while we repress it.
Our own obsession with authorship and originality obviously stems from our economic system, where everything of value is understood as being someone’s property. But the history of poetry in particular defies this way of viewing ideas and language, all of which are in wide, continuous circulation, usable by anyone with access to them. A poem isn’t a tangible object, or a commodity in the normal sense. It can be memorised, for example. Taking it for yourself doesn’t deprive someone else of it. And as anyone who’s shared a poem online knows, poetry isn’t anyone’s property, least of all the poet’s. I’m not saying writers shouldn’t receive remunerations or rewards. But our restrictive perspective of this has produced things like plagiarist poets, who take the legal claim of language too literally – that it really stands for you.
We have the Romantics to thank for this contortion, strangely – Wordsworth in particular, who campaigned zealously for ‘perpetual copyright’ (while his own poems were often more collaborative than Romantic beliefs about inspiration would suggest). In a way, this becomes an assertion that the ‘I’ in the poem is the same as the legal entity named at the front of the book, whose function is to continually assert ownership of content. I’m uncomfortable with this for many reasons – it’s a kind of imprisonment, really – for the poet as much as anything. So, for me it has seemed worthwhile to foreground the unoriginal or derivative aspects of my writing, to openly steal.
Your publisher writes that After Fame ‘completes the loose trilogy’ of your ‘process-derived works’. (81 Austerities made use of social media posts, and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (2015) began life as 72 Google searches.) And the title, After Fame, feels like a natural progression after your investigations of celebrity and public figures in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage. When you were writing After Fame, how conscious were you of the idea that you were completing a loose trilogy?
A lot of the thought processes begun in the first two books are followed up or concluded in After Fame – about commercial language, the passage of a poem from the private to the public, and poetry’s place in the market, especially. Or perhaps they’re just explored more fully here. It’s a much more substantial book – about four times as long as Kim Kardashian’s Marriage! The three books also share a principle of overarching form as a method of composition, so it made sense to group them together.
In many ways, you deliberately constrain your work — using these ‘processes’ to construct your poems, for example — yet you don’t appear to be particularly interested in consistently limiting yourself on a formal level, as Martial often did by writing in elegiac couplets. Why is that?
I think I’ve transferred the idea of formal structure to the level of the book. The physical book as a poetic form of sorts. Martial’s books were constructed this way too – a kind of cycling through of themes and recurring figures. It’s a bit like scaling up the poem, perhaps? Various techniques are employed in the individual poems, sometimes quite strict, but I increasingly locate poetry’s sense of formal capacity in the ‘book as form’ – which means there’s room within it for incidental poems, minor poems, poems as bad jokes, or call backs, or lists, that might not really ‘cut it’ if I regarded each poem as a kind of discrete formal mechanism. They can stand by themselves, but really they’re incorporated more meaningfully inside a larger structure – like everything – parts that make sense of the whole.
Poem ‘’ begins ‘Why mix the high style with the low style’, and since Pope poets have worried about potentially deflating their work with the ‘vulgar’. But it seems as if you are more interested in questioning the very idea of quality itself — for example, you published a pamphlet recording the author’s Uber pickups with your micropublisher, If A Leaf Falls Press (named after a Lil Wayne quote). And, of course, Kim Kardashian’s current husband, Kanye West, is king of the corny punchline. Do you worry about bathos at all, or do you see it as an opportunity?
Kanye’s willingness to employ ghostwriters for his raps is viewed with disdain. But why? I think the notion of quality in poetry is a matter of convention, and therefore not to be trusted. It’s a kind of authenticity fetish, and I’m instinctively averse to the idea of purity in art or literature – quite a lot of how I approach writing is concerned with destabilizing any fixed notion of quality. While historically some poets have resisted the demotic, others have consciously tried to write poetry that affects not to be poetry – Dante or Coleridge, perhaps as much as Madeline Gins or Tan Lin.
You’ve written an ‘ambient novel’ (Safe Mode) and have a new novel forthcoming. How do you choose to write a novel or a poem? Do you find it easier to write novels or poetry?
I would have to say that poetry is easier. It’s also less reliable, never a sure thing. You can’t count on poetry to show up, but I love how a poem can be a surprise, happening in a way that’s completely divorced from the poet’s ‘work ethic’, or lack of it. You can’t really work hard at being a poet, it’s antithetical to the whole enterprise, which seems indebted to a love of time-wasting, idleness – otium, as the Roman poets called it. Then again, if you turn out not to like your poem, you might be able to write another one tomorrow. This can’t be said of the novelist. As for writing novels or poems, I don’t really choose a particular mode, it’s more that the approach is suggested by the idea. In this sense, the presence of a form is a guide for writing from the outset. I’m with Susan Sontag on this. Form demands content. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it assigns content – it identifies it as such. In any case it’s what lets writing happen at all.
Sam Riviere‘s latest collection After Fame: The Epigrams of Martial is out now. To find out more and buy a copy, visit Faber’s website.
Two poems from After Fame are published in the April/May 2020 issue of The London Magazine. You can buy a copy here.
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